The Second Gleam, the new EP from the Avett Brothers, is a good example of the band’s quieter side. The six songs here show off the trio as a group of balladeers, each one as capable as the other at taking the leading man’s spot and tugging at your heartstrings. Here the brothers often tackle their past, sing about what they want to leave behind and what they want to keep, which is usually the woman they love. It’s a short album about growing up, about moving on from much while still clinging to the wants they have in front of them. It’s also an album that is, for all its quiet, very versatile. It’s good driving music, good hanging around the house music, good on the iPod during the train ride to work, good for dinner parties. The Second Gleam is strong throughout, simple but always well-executed and heartfelt, and with enough small surprises to keep you guessing.
The quiet of the record is nothing new for the Avetts. Their recordings have always been more tempered than their live act, relying on their spot-on musicianship, sweet vocals, and perfect harmonies to drive their songs of heartache and deep wanting. This subdued approach works for them. It manages to strip down and calm their live sound without losing any energy. The Second Gleam has that same appeal. It isn’t going to catch any fans off guard with its folk ballads, but the surprise might come in how well they pull it off once again. Stand outs “Murder in the City” and “Bella Donna” show off all the band’s strengths in the span of a combined six minutes, showing their ability to weave a story through their simple acoustic tunes.
“Murder” has the narrator pleading that, should he be killed in the city, that no one avenge his death. He goes on to make a number of requests, about posthumous letters to be sent, about ways in which the people he left behind can comfort themselves. Most importantly, the narrator wants his family to remember “the love that let us share out name.” It might seem like a trite and overly sentimental line, but its combined with a troubling doubt. The narrator wonders which of his brothers their parents loved the most, which is a strange and honestly petty thought to have when on the verge of death. And all of this is wrapped in the macabre way in which the narrator imagines his end. That he starts all his ruminations on love and family with the possibility of his own murder shows us how, no matter how he loves his family, and how sweetly he voices it, there is something deep-down broken in the voice telling the tale.
“Bella Donna” has a similar break in its narrator, although the singer seems to be a little more aware of it. He pines after a girl who never saw him for who he really was, who never really listened to him. But the tension between how he realizes that and still pines after her drives the song along, and also rubs against the perfect sweetness in the vocals. At no point on the EP do the brothers sound as in love as they do in this song, which makes the fact that the love goes unreturned all the more heartbreaking.
“St. Joseph’s” is a subtle and effective change of pace, where the vocals take on a slight edge when telling the story of a hospital stay. The strident vocals make the slow-plucked guitar trudge to almost a standstill, giving off the feeling of a fever dream. It’s a beautiful moment, another time where the brothers are remembering a past they’ve left behind. Here’s its this one night in a hospital racked with fever. In other songs its running through the woods behind their parents house, or forgetting the mistakes they made in their youth. The Avetts go back and forth here between a clear-eyed decision to move past their immaturities, and a more urgent and troubling desire to burn down their pasts and live wholly within their new love. The way they play the irrational and the rational against each other here is what makes The Second Gleam work so well, and come together as a slight but affecting whole.
What keeps it from being out and out brilliant, though, is its reliance on ballads. As good as they are, the EP only shows one side of a very talented band. Their last album, Emotionalism, showed everything the band could do, from aching ballad to infectious floor-stompers while hinting at the unbridled energy of their live show. Here, we just one side of a band with a lot of sides to show. And it may be a great side, even their best, but it sounds much better when we get to hear it mixed in with all their other sounds.